Friday, July 25, 2008

Focus, Insight and Creativity, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Scrabulous

This is interesting. Very interesting, actually. Perhaps even a revelation. There I was the other day, sitting with my laptop in a nearby cafe. I had the beginnings of a flash story in my head and was determined to get it down. Now, I have been trying for months to wean myself of the highly addictive Scrabulous (online Scrabble for Facebook users), with little success. In fact, I am playing a game now as I write this blog post. So, on Wednesday, even though I had opened my word processor and was beginning my story, I couldn't stop myself from starting a new Scrabulous game, even though I felt very guilty about it and angry at myself that I had so little self control. But I did it anyway.

And here's the odd thing: I was in that writing "zone" and every few lines, when I was a little stuck I went to play a turn on Scrabulous - and I finished the whole flash story, 300 words. And more than that: I felt that playing Scrabulous actually helped me finish the story. As I wandered home, I pondered about how that could be: it seemed as though the game distracted those demons in my head that start niggling about how the story's not working, how bad it's going to be, how I might as well stop. They were so busy trying to win the Scrabble game, they left me alone to write my story.

Could this be? Well, a day later, yesterday, I opened my new copy of the New Yorker and lo and behold, a fascinating article entitled: The Annals of Science: The Eureka Hunt by Jonah Lehrer. This article is about scientific research attempting to uncover the mechanism behind that eureka moment of insight, where you have been trying and trying to solve something, and then, suddenly, after you've stopping thinking about it, you're doing something else - there it is!
While it is commonly assured that the best way to solve a problem is to focus, minimize distractions, and pay attention only to the relevant details, this clenched state of mind may inhibit the sort of creative connections that lead to sudden breakthroughs. We surpress the very type of brain activity we should be encouraging. (My italics)
This is all about left hemisphere of the brain versus right hemisphere - one side (left) focuses on individual details while the other side is the "big picture" side, the side which can make unusual and surprising connections. And it seems that when we are focussed on the problem at hand, it is our left brain which is working. What should we do instead? Relax, say the researchers:
Schooler's research has also led him to reconsider the bad reputation of letting one's mind wander. Although we often complain that the brain is too easily distracted, Schooler believes that letting the mind wander is essential. "Just look at the history of science," he says. "The big ideas seem to always come when people are side-tracked, when they're doing something that has nothing to do with their research." He cites the example of Henri Poincare, the 19th century mathematician, whose seminal insight into non-Euclidean geometry arrived while he was boarding a bus.
My assertion is that creative writing requires the same kind of insight process at each step of writing a story. You know that feeling that if you "make" the story continue, if you think about it with your "rational" mind, something feels forced, not right. And just was with scientific problems, I now believe that letting one's mind wander while in the writing zone might really prove to be helpful. I see it as looking at the "problem" (where does the story go from here?) from the side, out of the corner of your eye, while doing something else, instead of staring and staring at it.
Concentration, it seems, comes with the hidden cost of diminished creativity. "There's a good reason why Google puts ping-pong tables in their headquarters," Kounios said. "If you want to encourage insight, they you've also got to encourage people to relax."


Nik's Blog said...

Ooh, interesting stuff. Taking away the pressure for optimum performance makes a lot of sense, doesn't it?

Anne Brooke said...

Isn't this like that scene (don't know if it's true or not) in Amadeus where Mozart can't write the symphony without playing constantly with a billiard ball on the table? He gets a few notes down each time before the ball comes back and he sends it on its journey again.

I really think writing is done best in the small gaps between other stuff. Even on my writing days, I have to do online reading or surfing before, during and after getting anything down. Doing something else eases out the creativity, I think.

So, no need to feel guilty - it's the way we write and we should embrace it!



Jo Horsman said...

Brilliant. It's so true - I dont know how many rizlas, receipts and train tickets I've got with little notes on. I've even taken a photo of the back of my hand because that was the only place to write an idea. It's difficult sometimes, I think, because one can get so engrossed in the problem-solving aspect of writing a story. There's something 'addictive' about that side of it so it can be hard to let it - and therefore the feeling - go. Ego action. x

SueG said...

Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! This is so true and so great. It happens to me all the time -- quite often in the shower and, just this week twice when i was driving around the Vineyard listening to rock n roll on the radio. It's amazing, isn't it? (And, if Tangled Roots ever finds you, you'll see that I wrote about just such a eureka moment in there, too). Thanks for this! (Can you tell I'm all excited?) xo

Sara said...

That is fascinating Tania.

I used to play scrabulous with Matt, we sometimes had 2 games going at a time, and I used it in exactly the way you describe. I would get stuck in a story, flick to scrab, play 1 or 2 goes, and then return to my fiction and progress a little. Since Matt died I haven't had anyone to play with, and I hit refresh a lot on my emails and facebook page, but it doesn't have the same effect. Quite likely because the scrab brain is searching for the right words in a similar way to the fiction brain. Maybe?

KatW said...

VERY interesting, thanks for that Tania. It makes a lot of sense and I can definitely relate.

Now about Scrabulous. I've heard you mention it before. Is it only for facebook users? I love Scrabble and have lost my computer version.

Kat :-)

Clare said...

I can't do anything to do with words, but I can use Mine Sweeper,
Tetris or time management sims.

Tania Hershman said...

Wow, wonderful to hear all of your experiences and to see this actually put into action!
Nik - it does make sense when put like that, but not so easy, I find, to stop pressuring myself. I think I need a certain amount of pressure, the optimum amount maybe.

Anne - that's fascinating, I don't remember that part of Amadeus, I should go and watch it again. I will try not to feel guilty!

Jo - that's so true, about the addictive side to wanting to "solve" a story. We need to let go, and just wait, be patient, and fiddle with something else in the meantime!

Sue - are you excited? I couldn't tell :) I can't wait to read about it in Tangled Roots, fingers crossed the postman doesn't steal it to read for himself - again!

Sara - so sorry that I touched on a painful Matt memory. But it is amazing to me that you work in the same way as I do. Yes, maybe it is words, although Clare (below) has to play something wordless as her distracting tactic. Maybe we should spread the word about this, a whole manual on Scrabulous and Short story Writing? If you'd like, I am always open to a quickie Scrab game.

Kat - come to the Dark Side! I think there is a version for non-Facebook users ( ?) but if you are on Facebook, come and play with me. We'll get much more writing done ;)

Clare - very interesting, what does that say about me, you, MineSweeper? I've never played it, I think I will stick with one addiction at a time!

Deborah Rey said...

Right on! Hit home with me. Absolutely. Impossible for me to just sit down and write. If I do, it won't come. Give me a new CD with complicated lyrics, or music that makes me cry, let me watch a TV show without really taking it in, a bird bathing in the dog's waterbowl, doing the daily shopping on paper so my hubs can do them for real, play Scrabble (yes, indeed)or Bespelled ... it all makes for creative thinking, mental ping-pong, and usually a flow of words on virtual paper.
I tried the 'Hemingway routine' of writing every day at the same time and for the same length of time ... forget it. It drove me bonkers and produced nothing but blahblahblah.
Interesting post, Tania. Toda and Shalom.